The Blood That Flows Through My Veins

The Angel of Death was present what seemed like more often than not in the weeks leading up to my departure for Israel. In the span of three weeks, I lost three people that I loved and cared for very much. Still, months later, not a day passes that I don’t think about them. I think of how much I miss them. I think of how I am a better person because each of them was in my life.

I want to slowly share glimpses into the impact that each of these three men, two my professors and the other my grandfather, had on my life and religiosity. It has taken me time to even begin to be able to write about them, because at first, the pain was just too fresh. My experiences with my professors are related to the way my religious identity has transformed over the past few years. My grandfather, on the other hand, is related to the part of me that has remained consistent. In his life and in his death, he showed me that there is a part of me that remains despite all the changes. It seems appropriate for me to share some of my moments with my grandfather first, because he reminds me that I there is a spark within me that remains unchanged.

My grandfather was the one person in my family who didn’t know that I converted to Judaism or even thought about converting to Judaism. When I went from thinking about conversion to actually being in the process of converting, I talked to my mom about how we should tell my grandfather, her father, that I was no longer a practicing Catholic and was going to be Jewish. My mom felt that he would not be able to understand what it meant for me to be converting. He, like the rest of my family, had never met a Jew. I said that I wouldn’t hide it, but I also would not have a formal, sit-down conversation with him. My religion never came up in the visits I had with him, so it was left unsaid. In the moments following his death, one of the first things I thought to myself was, “Now, he knows.”

The Catholic services that followed his death were something I wasn’t quite ready to face. In the moments leading up to his death, there was no denying the strong Catholic faith that lived within him. In his last few days, his hospital room was filled with prayers and rosaries. I was there as our family priest came to give him the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick. I helped my cousin prepare the Divine Chaplet that was prayed immediately following his death by his bedside. And in the moments of his lasts breaths, I stood by his bed holding him as he held his rosary. I stared down at his hands gently carrying a crucifix attached to beads that had been rubbed endlessly as he prayed.

Part of me felt the guilt, that I may always carry, about leaving a beautiful tradition that has been with my family and in my culture for generations. How did I walk away from what he held so dear even in his last moments on earth? But the other part of me, the part of me that I knew he would be proud of, realized that there is still continuity among the rapture. It is the faith, commitment and love that he had running through his veins that continues in me. It is the passion and fervor that I saw him living every day for his family, community, and G-d that has been passed down to me, will continue to live within me and will hopefully continue on in my children, their children and their children’s children, with the help of Hashem. I may have gone down another path. I may have a different way of living it out, but it is the same fire within us both.

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My First Christmas… as a Jew

Merry Christmas to all those who are celebrating, including my much missed family!

Spending this Christmas in Israel was something I looked forward to since last Christmas. Last Christmas went really well, but I knew that this one would be even harder as a Jew. I had already distanced myself from the holiday but of course, celebrated with family. I knew this Christmas would put everyone on edge. My family already pays special attention to what I eat and don’t eat, wear and don’t wear and pray and don’t pray. The truth is, no matter how hard I try, as I distance myself from Christmas and other Christian experiences I distance myself from my family. I knew a Christmas away from family would be sad, but I knew it would be also be less stressful and comforting to be surrounded by so many other Jews in Israel.

Now that it is Christmas, I just don’t know if being away is as great as I thought it would be. I wish I was watching my nephews open there presents. I wish I was eating dinner with my family. I actually wish there were lights up on houses and Christmas trees in windows. It just doesn’t feel like Christmas and after having Christmas be the biggest day of the year for all of my life, it is sad.

Even though I most certainly miss Christmas and my family celebrating Christmas, I decided I needed to do something special in my own way. I have never had a “traditional” American Jewish December 25th. My December 25th is going to consist of a Chinese dinner and a random movie. I am excited for the new experience and celebrating what in my mind is a very Jewish, American social custom.

This is part of what going down “another path” means, and even though it is tough, I am even more committed to it now than I was before.

The dreams that were never meant to be

Life in Israel has been filled with unexpected ups and downs, but even on the most frustrating days, I am still amazed that I am here. I am freshly out of undergrad and in my early 20s. There are various points throughout one’s life that reflection on where one has been and questioning what is ahead is practically built in, and this point in my life is one of them. It is a moment of great transition, which is fragile but full of possibility.

At this moment, I look at where I am and can’t help but be kind of baffled about how I got here. Ten years ago, I would have thought that a Christian girl who converted to Judaism moved to Israel and had a BA in Religious Studies was just not possible, not just for me but for anyone! I was unaware that Judaism was a religion. I didn’t know that people live across the world from their family. I had no clue that someone could have a degree in something that wasn’t a job (e.g. teacher, doctor, lawyer, and engineer).

I love my life now. I wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world. This is the life I was created to live. And yet, I think of the life I dreamed of growing up and living when I was young(er).

There are so many dreams that changed. One of the first things I mourned the loss of when I knew Christianity was no longer mine was the wedding day I always thought I would have. I think I first planned my wedding when I was six. I had colors for bridesmaid dresses, drew pictures of what my dress would look like and had a church picked out. I now know how different my wedding will look from the one I imagined when I was six and from the one my parents, sister and rest of my family had and imagined for me. Now, even when I try really hard, I can’t imagine myself walking down a church aisle. It is almost like my dreams were just that, fuzzy dreams in the middle of the night that were just a distant, fragmented memory by morning. Now, I couldn’t be happier to dream of my Jewish wedding.

I have had time to adjust to the dramatic changes in my dreams, and they were a slow evolution for me. I slowly gained clarity on who I was and the next baby step in my life after each move. My parents (and the rest of my family) didn’t have that benefit. They just had the image of their daughter’s baptismal gown, which they kept safely tucked away, being passed on to her children for their Baptisms. In what felt like overnight, that dream was gone, and the image is getting fuzzy.  It is hard for them. I know that and pray for our patience.

I know that my life and future are radically different from where I thought they would be, but I know that I couldn’t possibly live it differently.  At each step, it was hard to leave the path that was already beaten and had been imagined, but each time there came a point where staying on the path, untrue to who I was, become a more painful thought than the fear of stepping onto my own, destined path.

Those dreams from my childhood were also of a great life but were not meant to be live out, not by me. I don’t know what is next, but I know that this other, unexpected path is my path.

Letter to My Rabbi

Over the past four months, I have gone through different options about how to approach the letter I wrote to my Rabbi about wanting to convert on this blog. I considered posting the entire letter, unedited with no commentary,writing a summary of the details of the letter, detailing my feelings regarding the letter or not acknowledging the letter at all. After starting many drafts to this post, I have finally decided that I would like to post the entire, unedited letter with brief commentary. I feel this is the best way to document my experience for myself and others.

First, some background: I have know my Rabbi for about 2 and a half years, first as my professor and later as I started attending his congregation. He is phenomenal, and I simply cannot properly explain what an amazing resource he has been for me with both my academic and personal journey with Judaism. Although I have come to know him fairly well over the past couple of years, I still have difficulties talking with him at times. The only reason I can think of to explain my fear is that I do admire and respect his opinion, and as my professor and the rabbi in charge of my conversion, he has authority and some power to evaluate me.  For whatever reason, it is hard for me to start conversations with him, but when I do, they are always fruitful.

This letter was written about six months after the first time I told my Rabbi I wanted to convert to Judaism and about four months after beginning conversion classes at our shul. He knew I was interested in Judaism and eventually converting, but I had not explicitly made my desire to convert in our community clear. When the topic of converting at our shul was raised in passing, I became too nervous to share that I wanted to convert through our community before I leave in the Fall. I felt that he received the wrong impression from my nervousness, and this letter was my response.

Writing this letter to my Rabbi signified a huge shift in my relationship to Judaism and the process of conversion. Our conversation after he read the letter resulted in the combined effort to work towards me converting before I move. After that conversation, the thoughts and feelings I had about becoming Jewish became more concrete. With each passing day, reality continues to set in, and I realize this is really going to happen. It brings a slew of emotions but mostly excitement.

I can’t attest to the experience of others, but I know that writing and sending this letter was one of the hardest things I have had to do in the process to convert. It is hard to put words to very intimate feelings and then send those words off to be judged. At the same time, it has been one of the most rewarding experiences, to wrestle with finding the words, and resulted in one of the most amazing outcomes, a plan for my conversion.

The letter:

“Dear Rabbi,

Let me start off by apologizing for emailing you. You are so busy and have so many emails to read that it is unfair of me to take up your time. With that said, I am going to do it anyway.

I have a mind that dwells, usually on the insignificant things. Since our conversation Wednesday evening I have not been able to get over the feeling that I gave you the wrong impression of how I feel about converting to Judaism. It is very hard for me to share my personal feelings, but I feel I must no matter how uncomfortable I am with the process. I will attempt to write openly and honestly,  בע”ה.

The first time I ever said the words, “I want to be Jewish,” I was 15 years old. It obviously seemed like a long shot since I lived in a small town, near no synagogues, knew no Jews, and didn’t even know what it meant to be Jewish. A few years later, I began seriously considering converting when I realized that it would actually be possible “one day.” I knew I had several steps before me, but I still knew the words, “I want to be Jewish” were true. It has been scary making the leap from serious contemplation over converting to the realization that this is going to happen because I cannot imagine my life otherwise.

That makes it sound like it was an easy decision, but it wasn’t and rightfully so. A decision as important as religion, the thing that shapes you and your life, should be difficult. I knew what I believed and knew how I wanted to live my life and it was clearly Jewish (at least in its simplest forms, more complicated theology is something that I will continuously learn and wrestle with). At the same time, I asked myself daily for about a year “Why do you want to do this? It is hard to be a Jew.” This is still a question I sometimes ask. I ask why I would take 613 mitzvot over 7 commandments. Honestly, it doesn’t make sense. Why give up something I can (more) easily follow for mitzvot that often leave me scratching my head? Logically, it doesn’t make sense, but my heart fell in love with mitzvot before I knew anything else about Judaism. Each day I asked the question, and even now, I can confidently answer that regardless of the gentile status I have now, I know that my soul was commanded to follow mitzvot along with all other Jewish souls at Mt. Sinai. Although I have not yet formally been commanded, I know that I was created in order to be commanded along with the rest of Israel. No matter how difficult it is to live with mitzvot, I know that I will be fulfilling my purpose when I do. Will I be able to be “perfect”? Probably not, but I know I want to live my life trying.

I love mitzvot already, but right now I am not commanded to fulfill them. Right now, every commandment that I follow is for my own benefit and is really only about bringing me closer to Hashem. While this is beautiful in its own way and necessary at times, it does not carry the same weight of being commanded. I can pray, keep kosher, observe Shabbat, ect. but until I am a Jew, it is really only for me. I am excited for the day when I do all these things for Hashem. One of the most beautiful aspects of Judaism, to me, is the fact that a Jew is commanded to live for Hashem in all aspects of life, every moment of everyday. It is one thing for me to wake up to pray for myself and another to be tired, want to press snooze and get up anyway, out of obligation, for Hashem.

This is just one example of many aspects of Judaism that I continue to be passionate about and inspired by. I feel this way about just about everything in Judaism and that is one of the reasons I know I want to begin living as a Jew as soon as I can.

Over the past few years, it has been difficult to feel like I don’t yet fit in anywhere. I dread being asked what religion I am. I cannot simply say I am not religious, because that is a lie. I cannot say I am Christian, because that is not what I believe or what I follow. I cannot say I am Jewish, because no matter how badly I wish I were, I am not, yet. This has been a horrible state to live in, and I constantly feel like I am lying to myself and others by not identifying as the religion that I practice and believe.

I do not want to continue to lie. I don’t want to continue to live mitzvot only for myself. I know I will only be shalom when my beliefs are an extension of my practices and my practices are an extension of my tribe and my tribe is an extension of my identity and my identity is an extension of my relationship with Adonai. This will only happen when I am a Jew, part of Israel, living in accordance with Hashem’s will.

The hesitation you may have felt on Wednesday was not by any means hesitation over if I want to convert to Judaism. I do with all my heart, soul and might.

Also, if it is possible, I would love to convert in this community and will do anything I can to make that happen. I have been scared to tell you that, because I don’t know what to expect as a response. I expressed my concern about leaving the community, because I was hoping it may prompt you to say something that could give me a more clear idea if conversion here would be possible. Also, it is a real concern. I am sad that I will be leaving the community, but I know it will always be my home. I am sad to be leaving you, but I know you will always be (my) Rabbi.

I hope I did not ramble too much. I tried to be concise, but as much as I am uncomfortable talking about myself, once I start it is hard to stop. I left so much unsaid, but I hope my desire is more clear than it may have been before.

Have a peaceful end of the week. May you have a smooth transition into the transcendent. See you on the other side.

“אלישבע

 

 

My Family will be Mourning. My Heart will be Full of Joy.

Since the beginning of Lent, I have felt strange not following the liturgy. Ever since I was young, Lent was my favorite liturgical season (yes, I have favorite liturgical seasons) and the services of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday were even more anticipated than midnight Christmas Mass. In years prior, I already felt removed from the Lenten narrative, but like many non practicing or believing Christians I still abstained or added a practice for Lent. For me, this was not so much about Lent as just a practice in self-control and trying to move closer to Hashem. This was the first year that I in no way participated in even the most remote practices of Lent or Easter. This is also the first year I will not be with my family on Easter. Which I made sure to let them know was not because I didn’t support their religious practices, but because the timing of Passover prevents me from visiting family.

Last year, was the first time in my life that I said “halleluyah” during Lent. The Catholic Church does not sing halleluyah during Lent because it is a time of mourning, but since I would daven the Shema and Amidah each day I would quietly say it to myself. This year, the first Shabbat after Ash Wednesday (the beginning of Lent) was the  first time I publicly said “halleluyah.” I remember the moment it came to say “halleluyah” in the repetition of the Amidah. I took a deep breath and with strength and joy I declared, “halleluyah.” For everyone else in the shul, the moment came and passed unnoticed, but for me it was a clear declaration of my theology and praise for Hashem.

In the Western Church, the Lenten season is coming to an end. This is an intense time for many Christians as Palm Sunday has passed and there is anxiety as the liturgy goes through the last days of Jesus’ life on earth and eventual death.  These days lead up Easter, which is full of joy, but in the mean time many Christians are stricken with grief. All of lent has been a time of mourning, but it culminates in these last few days of the season. This year the last days of Lent coincide with the beginning of Pesach (Passover). Now with Pesach approaching, I await the moments of looking up to the heavens and joyfully singing Hallel. I can’t help but feel strange by the fact that as I open my heart to let the praise and joy flood out for Hashem and redemption my family will all be without liturgy of praise and in a moment of emptiness. Jews and Christians around the world are set in tension on Friday and Saturday when one community experiences Hashem answering their cries for freedom and the other community is crying with great loss. Friday night and Saturday are moments  when the people of Israel are being drawn closer to redemption and freedom and Christians are ultimately in a state of emptiness and darkness. The Israelites are on their first steps towards returning to Israel and Christians are deeper in exile from freedom than any other time.

When my heart is full of joy for bnei Israel (children of Israel) from all generations that are making their way from slavery to freedom, my family, along with all Christians, is mourning. I will sing songs of praise and scream from the depths of my soul “HALLELUYAH,” while they sit in a place of darkness.

Before the weekend is up, they too will experience freedom in their own way. Yet, still, the tension will remain.

A Wonderful 5th Day of Chanukah and Christmas.

Merry Christmas to all who are celebrating! And, still, Happy Chanukah to all who are celebrating!

December 24th and 25th have been wonderful. I have spent time with my 75 closest relatives over the past two days. The highlight was getting to see my adorable 1 year old nephew. Not everything related to Christmas went exactly as planned, but when do things related to family ever go as planned?

Last Thursday, December 22, my cousin had a beautiful baby boy a few weeks earlier than planned. The call that she was in labor came as a suprise and I quickly packed a bag and headed out of town. I am so thankful that both baby and mommy are doing well. The rush and excitement threw me off my planned course. I hadn’t packed enough clothes. I was going to miss Shabbat at my shul. I didn’t get a chance to bake cookies for my family. Either way, the weekend ended up being a good time spent with family. I didn’t go to shul, but I prayed services in the silence of my room in the evening and morning.

This was my first December 25th where I would completely identify as an outsider and not in anyway claim the holiday. Last Christmas, besides giving you my heart (reference to Wham song), I did not identify as a “believer” but none the less did not identify as an outsider. I think it was and still is very hard to distance myself from a tradition that is so part of my culture and family. Many of my cousins would agree saying that they largely don’t believe Roman Catholic doctorine or practice Catholicism, but they still (strongly) identify as Catholic. In the way that Catholicism has always functioned as more than just a religion for my family and Mexican culture parallels Judaism as more than just a religious belief.

This year, my parents respected my request for no gifts for the most part. It is a tradition for my mother to buy the whole family Christmas pajamas and I did receive winter themed pajamas but no green and red and not santas, elfs, or Christmas trees…only snow flakes and snow men.

Another great thing about this year’s Christmas was I had a new perspective on things. One of the greatest feelings was sitting to eat dinner, breakfast and lunch with my family. Eating as a family, especially all our meals, happens very rarely in my family. To have those moments of no cell phones, no t.v. and no computers was very meaningful and made me think of beautiful Shabbat dinners where family and friends are gathered together for the great company. I do not have family to gather with every Friday and Saturday for Shabbat meals, but having those moments on Christmas Eve and Day was just as meaningful to me.

I am moving away for graduate school in a few months and I don’t if I would be able to come visit my family for the “holidays.” My dad works shift work and usually is not off for any holidays. My sister is a doctor, so she often has to work holidays. Also, her husband and her alternate which side of the family they spend Christmas with each year. This not only means that this was the first Christmas where I can remember my immediate family all being together, but it is also probably the last for at least a while. The fact that we were all able to spend this time together was amazing, a true blessing, and I would not have missed it for the world. It is days like December 24th and 25th of 2011 when the family is together in shalom that the love, energy and presence of the Divine is strong enough to transcend time altogether. It was not the days themselves that made the moments holy; it was the moments themselves that made the days, for me, holy.